What Happened When I Gave God My Overseas Birth Plan

We had been in India for two months when we discovered we were going to be parents.

This was not an “oops.”

I don’t know why we chose that particular time to start a family. Maybe it’s because our new, Himalayan-ringed world seemed so full of possibility. Maybe it’s because we had recently read the story of Hannah, who sought a child with tears. Or maybe it’s because, by that point, we had only had giardia once.

Whatever the reason, by getting pregnant we added to a long list of changes that had taken place within the last five years: get married, enter the workforce, decide to be missionaries, get rid of most of our stuff, move to India.

Yes, we discussed the “Major Life Transitions Stress Test” during missionary training.

But we were young and didn’t listen.

Anyway, I worked hard to prepare. I binge-listened to podcasts with scary and beautiful birth stories. And I sang to my baby: “The Lord is my light, my joy, and my song. By day and by night, He leads me along.”

The Internet said I should make a “birth plan.” A birth plan is a tidy, bullet-point list of desired birth positions, preferred environment, and what kind of meds you are okay with and not okay with. A birth plan is where you say that you want to be surrounded by lavender-scented candles, or that you want to breathe, float, meditate, or walk through the pain. So, I made one of those things and searched for a hospital.

The first hospital was 30 minutes away by bus. (We had no car. I know, someone should go mentor those poor new people!)

At the hospital, a nurse in a white Punjabi suit led Joshua and me to Labor and Delivery. I stepped into the room. A pair of stirrups hung over a skeletal bed. Some kind of instrument, covered in goo, sat on the counter. The doctor said men were not allowed to accompany their laboring wives, a policy meant to protect the privacy of other laboring women. 

“It’ll only be nurses here around your due date,” she told us. “Sometimes that can be a less than optimal situation. I recommend you find somewhere else.” 

Somewhere else? The closest “somewhere else” was two hours south of us! I refolded my birth plan, and we left.

The second hospital we checked was beautiful. An electric bug zapper cast a blue glow in the foyer. A woman mopped with a rag on the end of a stick. But the waiting room for the OB/GYN was empty. 

We walked into her office. She smiled, but I didn’t like her smile somehow. 

“I would like to give birth naturally,” I told her, unfolding the well-worn birth plan. “What is your policy on medication during labor?”

“We will not give you any pain-saving drugs. You have to bear the pain.” Her voice sounded almost threatening, and I felt one of my eyebrows raise. 

“Okay. Well, I want my husband with me. Can you accommodate?” 

She leaned back in her chair and chuckled. “Why do you ask so many questions? You’ve never even had a baby. You don’t know. I’m the doctor, and I know. Just leave everything to me.”

We left her office and crossed town. I wanted to check the government hospital. Walking into the large building, I assured Joshua, “It can’t be that bad.”

We walked to L and D. I held my breath. Cots lined the hallway. Women lay on the cots. Some moaned. I felt frightened for them. Would they have their babies on the floor? When I asked, I was told they’d be transferred when ready to be delivered.

Cue hospital number three. We were shown to the delivery room. The walls were splattered with something. Could be water stains, I comforted myself. 

Over the stains hung a poster of a white baby. One delivery bed, barely padded, sat next to an uneven metal table that held the doctor’s tools. I swallowed and followed the doctor upstairs. There was a nursery, a bilirubin light, an oxygen hood. The obstetrician seemed kind and capable, and everyone answered my questions politely. This will have to work! 

We made arrangements and booked a taxi home. As I sat watching the waving Buddhist prayer flags and snow-dusted mountains out my window, I considered going back to the US for the birth. In fact, another missionary mama had strongly suggested I do so.

But every time I talked to God about it, He gave me a kind of a bittersweet peace. A strong conviction that this small sacrifice would make a difference. 

Lord, are You sure?

Jesus praised the woman who gave only two coins. Did He notice how hard it was to give the little I had? And would it make any tangible difference for the Parvata people? 

I didn’t know. All I knew was that God was calling me to place everything in His able hands. 

Even my birth plan.

As I wrote later in my book, “I felt a sisterhood with Mary, who had changed all her plans for God even when she had no idea what God was doing. Mary, who had to travel to Bethlehem while great with child. Mary, who had her baby in a dirty stable without her mother there to tell her it would be okay. She may not have understood why, but she was willing. Willing to obey God, willing bear the Light of the World ‘to the people who walk in darkness.’”

I ended up giving birth to two beautiful children in those mountains. There were no candles, music, or mood lighting. There was no tub, exercise ball, or heating pad. But it didn’t matter. It was beautiful in its own way. There were miracles, big and small, which are more precious to my faith now than a perfect birth story.

Later, I accompanied an Indian friend when she gave birth. Her first two births, she’d said, had been at home. Largely ignored by her family, she gave birth behind the woodstove, “like a dog.” For her third child, I brought her to the hospital and held her hand while she pushed.

Just at the moment when my friend thought she couldn’t do it, she looked up at me with a strange, searching expression. Later, I asked her what she was thinking.

“I was remembering all the women I’d seen die in childbirth back in the village. But when I looked up at you, there was light all around your head, and you looked . . . well, you looked ‘local.’ And somehow I knew I wasn’t going to die.”

Having my children in India did something I couldn’t have predicted. It solidly bonded me with the women with whom I wanted so much to share Jesus. It helped me to understand them and helped them to understand me.

Are you pregnant and overseas? Chandler’s article about giving birth abroad has some great advice about important things to consider. Don’t feel guilty if you need to travel, invest, or even go home for your birth.

But also, don’t be afraid to ask God about His will for your birth. His ways are higher than ours, and so are His plans. As I sang for my daughter when I held her for the first time: “The Lord is my light, my joy, and my song. By day and by night, He leads me along.”

Trusting God With What You Leave Behind

A few weeks after we arrived in Tanzania, Gil and I heard breaking glass in the middle of the night. Imagining the worst, we rushed downstairs to discover that one of our pictures had fallen off the wall. No big deal.

Except that the picture represented something that was a big deal. In it, Gil and I stood smiling on a park playground with a half dozen other adults and about 30 kids. We all wore navy blue Faithblast! shirts. This was a photo of the weekly kids’ club that Gil and I had started in Southern California. 

Gil and I barely knew each other when we started FaithBlast, and it’s how we fell in love. The ministry was our baby. We nurtured it for four years, and it blossomed into further neighborhood outreach. Our story was inextricably linked with that neighborhood, that playground, those kids. 

Knowing we were heading overseas, Gil and I had fervently searched for someone to take over the ministry when we were gone. But there was no one. When we left, the FaithBlast ended.

So when the picture fell off the wall and the glass smashed into pieces, it felt eerily symbolic. Fresh tears came. Why had we left a thriving ministry that was so dear to us to come to this unfamiliar and uncomfortable place where we had to start from scratch all over again? 

In the excitement of following God’s call to another country, it’s easy to underestimate the repercussions of your departure. Maybe, like us, it’s a ministry that falls apart. Perhaps it’s aging parents who don’t understand. Maybe it’s siblings in crisis or a beloved church in upheaval. Perhaps it’s hurting a friend whose wedding you can’t attend. Maybe there isn’t an obvious replacement for the role you filled, and you know you are leaving behind a burden on others.

When we say yes to God’s call to missions, we first think about the sacrifices God is asking us to make. We count the cost of leaving homes, family, jobs, community. But it’s our choice, and we walk into it willingly. What about the sacrifices we are asking others to make on our behalf? We are making that choice for them, and that burden can feel heavy.

Jesus said that everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for His sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life (Matthew 19:29). 

It’s a stunning promise. But what about those we leave behind? Can we trust God with them too?

This is tricky, and not just for those leaving for the first time. For those deep into overseas ministry, this question will haunt us for the rest of our lives – on both sides of the world. Do we fill the need at home, or do we fill the need overseas? Both choices leave projects unfinished, loved ones with empty spaces in their lives. How do we choose?

We must ask ourselves the hard questions and dig out our motivations. Am I going or leaving or staying because I’ve made an idol of family or position or comfort? Am I shirking my responsibility, or I am trying to take the role of God in another person’s life? Is it clear that it’s my job to care for this person, to mediate that conflict, to push that ministry forward? Or is God asking me to surrender that to Him? 

As the old song tells us, Trust and Obey. But in this case, Obey and then Trust. Walk forward in obedience, and trust Him with what we can’t do. 

In My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers wrote, 

If we obey God, it is going to cost other people more than it costs us, and that is where the pain begins. A lack of progress in our spiritual life results when we try to bear all the costs ourselves. And actually, we cannot. Because we are so involved in the universal purposes of God, others are immediately affected by our obedience to Him. . . . We can disobey God if we choose, and it will bring immediate relief to the situation, but it will grieve our Lord. If, however, we obey God, He will care for those who have suffered the consequences of our obedience. We must simply obey and leave all the consequences with Him. Beware of the inclination to dictate to God what consequences you would allow as a condition of your obedience to Him.

When we left California in 2001, we left behind FaithBlast. When we left Tanzania in 2020, my replacement was only temporary, and Gil’s position wasn’t filled at all. Once again, we had to trust God with what we left behind. 

Our ministry, on any side of the globe, always belongs to God. The people we love are in His hands. Where I see only a small piece; He sees the complete picture. When He makes it clear it’s time to leave, then I can trust that He knows what He is doing with what I leave behind. 

Can Missionaries Fire People?

Can Christians fire people? Can pastors fire people? Can churches fire people? What about missionaries? Can they fire people? I’m sure this question has been asked before, but it is worth asking again because my guess is that there are some individuals or teams out there who might be wrestling with this right now. So, can missionaries fire people?

Before we get into that exactly, here are some questions you might want to consider first:

What type of ministry are you doing? Are you serving in a local church, business, educational or humanitarian work, medical care, orphan care, translation, or something else? Are you putting someone’s life at risk by allowing this person to continue in their position at a hospital? Are you jeopardizing the livelihoods of others whose income might depend on this business? Are you jeopardizing the safety, security, or well-being of children in your care?

Is their behavior a result of personal decisions that this individual has made (sin) or poor management on my part to create an environment for them to succeed in? Meaning, how much am I to blame as a leader/manager for this person’s behavior? Did I fail to make the expectations clear? Did I fail to explain the task clearly? Did I fail to communicate the importance/urgency of this task? Did I assign a person to this task who never even had a chance of being able to complete it in the first place? Is this person a good fit for the job? As organizations grow and shift and transform, so do positions, and sometimes through all of that people end up in jobs that perhaps are not a best fit for their skills. What can be done then?

Have adequate warnings been given? People make mistakes. We are all human beings, sinners desperately in need of God’s grace. Have you given this person a chance to correct their mistakes? Are they adequately aware of what they’ve done and how they can prevent it in the future?

Is the firing of this person for your personal comfort or for the good of the ministry? This one is hard to reflect on, but it is necessary to help us identify our motives before letting someone go. Is the issue that you have with the person just that you don’t like them personally, or is it that they are doing something wrong or being defiant? What seems like defiance and rudeness is sometimes just another way of doing things, and discerning this takes some time and self-awareness and also understanding of the culture in which you are serving.

What do your fellow team members think? While many missionaries may work alone and have the decision to hire/fire solely in their hands, many of us work on teams, and that makes this decision even more complicated. What do your fellow mission partners think about this situation? How does that influence your decision? Do you trust/value their opinions in this regard? Which one of you ultimately has the final say in this decision?

What are the local laws regarding firing of employees? This one can take a lot of time to investigate and figure out, especially if those laws are confusing to read, difficult to access, in a different language, not well documented, randomly enforced, etc. If your host country is anything like ours, the government officials are always looking for any reason to fine or tax us heavily or even kick us out, so be very careful that whatever action you take is in line with local laws.

Can you still continue ministering to this person after they are let go? Missionaries may be reluctant to let go of staff because they fear that letting go of their staff member means that their relationship will end and therefore that opportunities to witness to them are over. They feel they are betraying themselves and their calling if they do this. But firing does not necessarily mean you have to end that relationship. There are many ways to continue to invest in that relationship by visiting them, calling them, inviting them over for dinner, inviting them to church, etc.

What are the consequences of keeping this person? What could be the result if you keep this person? What effect might it have on you, your team, your community? On the workplace environment? How are their actions affecting the overall morale of the organization and the other employees themselves? If other employees perceive that there are no consequences for certain behaviors, how will that affect their motivation to uphold the standards set for the group?

What are the consequences of firing this person? What could be the result for your ministry? What will it mean for your team if you need to quickly add or shift responsibilities around? What could be the result for your community? For their family? The answer to this question does not necessarily have to have any bearing on whether an employee needs to be fired or not, but it may have bearing on HOW an employee is fired. How many people are depending on this person for a salary? What will happen to them (most likely innocent bystanders) if this person is let go? Is there any way you can lessen the blow? Allow the family time or flexibility to figure out other solutions for providing for themselves? Switch the person to another position?

Are they representing your organization and ministering to others? Some ministries expect the people that they hire or work with to be to be their teammates as ministers of the gospel (i.e. professing Christians who intentionally work to shine the light of Christ in their day-to-day jobs as teachers, carpenters, nurses, evangelists, etc.).  On the other hand, other ministries are hiring people that they know are not Christians so that they have a chance to minister to them through their jobs. If they were hired to be ministers of the gospel in their jobs, are they intentionally striving to represent Christ in those areas?

What does the Bible say? Well, the Bible does not address this issue directly, so rather than take a couple verses out of context, let’s try to look at it from a wider view. The Bible talks about mercy and grace; the Bible also talks about obedience and standards. The Bible talks about forgiveness; the Bible also talks about consequences and discipline. There are verses that might seem to support the idea of firing and verses that might seem to reject it. So, what now?

At the end of the day, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Can you fire people? I would say that yes, as a missionary, you can fire someone. Should you fire this particular person that you are thinking of at this specific time? That, I do not know.

There is no easy answer as each situation, each ministry, and each person is unique. PRAY. Ask God for wisdom and discernment and clarity. Ask that He would remove any personal bias or sin that may be lingering in your heart as you reflect on this. Ask that He would guide you with your words and actions and grant you the patience and grace that you need in those difficult conversations where you might need to let someone go. Ask that He would give you His heart in ALL situations, even and especially in something like this.

What Did Jesus Mean When He Said “Blessed”?

by Yosiah

In the last couple of years, the film series The Chosen has become quite popular. The episode at the end of season two portrays Jesus preparing for what will become the Sermon on the Mount. In the show, Jesus is accompanied by one of his disciples, Matthew. Jesus is preparing the words for the opening of the sermon, and Matthew is sleeping. Suddenly, Jesus comes to Matthew’s side and wakes him up—telling Matthew that he has finally found the right words with which to open the sermon.

Jesus tells Matthew that these opening words are like a map. Matthew is confused, wondering what Jesus means by calling it a “map.” So Jesus explains to Matthew that these words of blessing (which we know as the “Beatitudes”) are like a map because they will show people how they can meet Jesus and get close to him: by finding the people Jesus describes in the Beatitudes.

As I watched The Chosen, the Lord reminded me that He does indeed have a heart of mercy for people that the world thinks are “unlucky.” But these are the people that Jesus calls blessed. Jesus wants to show us that the heart of God is with the poor, the meek, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the ones who mourn, the ones who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and the ones who are persecuted. If we want to meet Jesus and encounter him in our day-to-day lives, he has given us a map; he has shown us the way in which we can meet him and encounter him. We are to look for and meet the people that He calls blessed.

A few days ago, our family went to visit a church near our house. It’s only a seven-minute motorcycle ride, but it had been many years since we had visited this congregation. When we arrived at the church, a woman whom we have known for a long time greeted us and said: “Yosiah, did you come here to meet Jesus or to meet Irwan?” I looked around me, confused, as I did not know what she was talking about. “Who is Irwan? I do not know who he is.”

It turned out that Irwan was the new youth pastor who would be preaching that day. During the service, this new youth pastor preached a detailed sermon. He had clearly prepared with diligence. One of his sermon points was this: “Jesus is present in our Sunday morning services. Jesus met his disciples on Sunday (that first Sunday 2,000 years ago) after he had just risen from the dead, and so we as a congregation are required to meet together in church on Sundays, because Jesus is present here.”

There was nothing glaringly incorrect about this statement. I am sure that, yes, when we gather together as believers Jesus is indeed present. I believe that God is omnipresent and therefore of course is present in church. However, as we returned home after the service there were two questions that kept nudging my heart, and I have been pondering them ever since. Firstly, there was the question of whether I went to church to meet Jesus or to meet Irwan (someone that I did not know). And secondly, there was the question of whether the Lord Jesus is present in the church building every Sunday, along with the congregation. There is nothing wrong with these questions—or statements if you will—but in my heart a third question arose: Is Jesus only present in church? Can Christians only meet Jesus during the hours on Sunday morning when they sit inside a church building?

Multiple times, Christian friends have come to visit us in the slum in which we live. Bapak Sultan lives near us. He has a large body, dark tattooed skin, and long crazy hair. I always find it amusing (and yet slightly offensive) when our visitors ask, “Is Bapak Sultan dangerous? Has he bothered your ministry? Is he a trouble maker?” My answer is always the same: from the outside he may look like he is a “bad guy,” and perhaps he could do “bad things,” but he has always been friendly to us. In the mornings when we go for exercise walks, he is the first to greet us, and he often exchanges jokes with me. I remember one time he helped me push a broken-down car out of the way so that we could park our car.

Maybe these examples of good deeds that Bapak Sultan has done towards us seem like very small gestures, but to us they are not insignificant. People often want to add labels to others, stereotyping and stigmatizing people according to their outward appearance. However, I am convinced that Jesus invites us to meet him through people who are outsiders. People who are on the edges, are forgotten by society, and are viewed with suspicion like Bapak Sultan. The choice is in our hands: do we only want to meet Jesus when we are nicely dressed, wearing fancy shoes and a suit and tie in a church building? Or do we want to meet Jesus in our everyday lives, through people who are on the edges, who are oppressed, and even suspicious-looking? For it is actually these people that Jesus calls blessed.

If we call ourselves Christians, will we choose to continue to give negative labels to people—people who on the outside do not look like pastors, church elders, or other educated people—or will we have mercy on them? For it is people such as these who are poor, full of sorrow, hungry and thirsty for hope, and who have been persecuted all their lives (physically or mentally). Do we long to share the joyful news with them as Jesus did? Or do we just want to close our eyes and avoid them?

There is a beautiful image from the prophet Habakkuk: “But the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14 NRSV). One day the earth and all that is in it will be filled with the knowledge of knowing the Lord, the glory of salvation that Jesus worked on the cross for the whole world. This will be fulfilled when all believers are willing to meet Jesus outside the church walls and become bearers of the good news of peace and salvation through Jesus Christ in whatever communities the Lord places us in. May we seek out the people Jesus calls “blessed” — and learn to become them as well.

 

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

(Matthew 5:3-10 NRSV)

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Yosiah was born and raised in Jakarta, Indonesia. He is married to Anita, and together they have lived and served in a slum community for the past decade with Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor. They have two young TCK sons. Yosiah loves making people laugh, washing his motorcycle, and playing music.

You Can’t Cross the Ocean on an iPad

by Beth Barthelemy

“My mom lives near where your Grandma lives,” my friend told my youngest, who looked up at her with her head tilted to one side. “No,” my two-year-old daughter said, “my grandma lives in the iPad.”

My friend looked at me, tears filling her eyes, because she lives motherless on this continent too. Because she had a two-year-old daughter too, who likely also does not understand her grandma as a real, full of hugs and love kind of person.

Without fail, one of the most common consolations I am offered when I share this hardest part of living an ocean away is the well-meaning, “Well at least you have technology these days.” Which is always said in love, with compassion. And which I always receive with inward tears, knowing its insufficiency.

Technology reminds us constantly of what we are missing, of what we are lacking. At the risk of sounding ungrateful, let me explain.

If my family had boarded a ship sixty years ago, we would have said our goodbyes knowing full well we may never see our families again, or at least not every person in them. The grief would have been intense. We would have arrived in a new country and built a new life, acutely aware of all that we had left behind. It was a different time, and I am not wishing for it. I don’t know if I could do this life sixty years ago.

In the 21st century, leaving looks like never fully leaving; we have a foot in each continent. We have double the relationships, double the lives. We build a new life while maintaining the old one, and we live in a perpetual state of grief, never fully saying goodbye. I don’t know that it is a better way to do life overseas; it is simply a different way.

When my daughters do crafts with Grandma over FaceTime, I am so grateful for her presence. I’m also aware that her hands are not here to guide theirs. I can acknowledge the joy that my children have a relationship with her even as I mourn that this relationship is one-dimensional on a screen. When I see my mom on the screen in front my daughters, or my dad strumming a song for them, there is joy and grief, every single time.

After the past couple of years, perhaps it is easier for others to relate than it would have been before. We have all found ourselves fatigued with online church, with yet another Zoom meeting, yet another voice memo instead of a chat over coffee. Not a single non-family member crossed the threshold of our door for many months. We have all been immensely relieved that life has begun to return to normal, to in-person church and meetings and coffee dates, and to friends physically entering our home and lives again.

Are we ungrateful to mourn the losses in this century of advancement when we live far from family and friends? What is there to do when we feel the insufficiency of technological relationships?

Technology is a gift; it also reminds us that we are not made for one-dimensional relationships. We are meant to look deeply into each other’s eyes, to exchange prolonged hugs, to hold hands, to interpret body language and hear all the intonations in each other’s voice. We are meant to live with those we love, those with whom we are in community, just as God dwells with us, not in some abstract, intangible way, but in spirit and in truth, and in flesh through Jesus.

As we do in so much of life, we can mourn and rejoice at the same time. I miss my mom and am grateful I can hear her voice over the phone, and I’m also grieving because I could use her warm hugs. My children know and love their cousins — and also there is no good way for nine children under ten to play well over Facetime. We are created for personal, tangible, physical relationships; one-dimensional technology-based relationships are a poor representation of the lives we are meant to live with those we love.

And yet. It really is not ungrateful to feel sorrow during a video chat. We know that our times together, fully together, are that much sweeter for all the time lost. And we can gratefully look forward to a time when we will live forever with those we love, in the presence of Christ.

My youngest has since felt the touch of her grandma’s hug, seen the smile in her eyes, and knows that she does not, in fact, live in the iPad after all, but in a real house. She has also had the gut-wrenching experience of saying goodbye for a long stretch of time, of delayed hugs and holding of hands and cuddling on her lap. We will enjoy talking to her over Facetime tomorrow, and we are counting the days until we are really truly together again.

(38, for those interested. Only 38 more sleeps!)

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Beth Barthelemy is a wife, mother to four young children, and cross cultural worker. She and her husband, Ben, have lived and worked in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, for the past five years. She has an MA in Christian Studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. You can find her online at bethbarthelemy.com and on Instagram as bethbarthelemy.

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!

Thank you for hosting my niece (again)

Dear ALOS family, I wrote the following letter five years ago (?!). At that time my nieces were ages 9 to 16, now they are, 14 to 21. Those younger sisters who were just watching the oldest? This summer all four of them participated in three different trips. I see how that first trip five years ago is still rippling out. I can’t show you exactly how your investment in teens will play out. But as an aunt watching, I can tell you God is using your investment in ways you can’t imagine. I want to write a follow-up letter to this one. But for some context, let’s start here. Again, I say, “Thank you for hosing my niece and nieces! I’m thinking of you and praying for you . . . and grateful for your investment in what you might find annoying!” With blessing, Amy

Dear Missionary who hosts summer teams,

I write this letter to you with egg on my face. Many moons ago I spent a summer in China teaching English for six weeks to English teachers from around Anhui Province. Because it was “long enough to form meaningful relationships,” I maintained an interiorly superior attitude that many one- or two-week summer trips were a waste of time.

At least for us on the field. After I quit my job, packed two suitcases, and moved to China, I was now one of you. My belief that week-long trips were meaningful and useful for those who went on them, but not us, only solidified. I wasn’t like “them,” I really got to know the culture. I didn’t just swoop in and out. I “made a real difference” (even now I roll my eyes at myself. Pride is so ugly). I’d join in the discussion about whether short trips were worth all the time, money, and effort that went into them. Was any real difference being made?

Oh knowing everything can be such a burden, can’t it?

Those questions? They are good questions. They should be asked. We should wrestle with them. But what God has shown me this summer is that the boundary lines of my understanding are significantly smaller than I believe them to be.

Put another way? I think I know more than I do.

And maybe you do too.

If you host summer teams, this is a huge thank you card to you. If I could hire a sky writer? I would. I would fly over you and write, “Thank you! You have no idea what a difference you have made.” Well, maybe all I would actually write in the sky is “Thank You!” But what I mean is, “You have no idea what a difference you have made.”

I have nieces that range in age from 9 to 16. The older ones are starting to go on summer trips. Their church begins the process with trips in town, and then the next summer trips within the US, and then international trips.

I have watched how their church takes months to prepare the participants. How they are intentional about serving instead of having “cool experiences.” How they are joining in the Great Commission.

This was our first summer as a family to have a girl go on an international trip. (Side note, if it has not happened in your family yet, it is a little weird when you are suddenly not the one going on that trip. When you are not the one sharing stories and prayer requests.)

I know, because I’ve been in your shoes, how much work it is to prepare for a team to come in. Even a team who is doing work you desperately need done. There are moments you wonder if it is worth it. There are moments you are sure it is not.

What you might not see, what I had not seen before, was all of the preparation. The preparation of supplies for parties and clubs. The preparation of their hearts. The cultural information they are learning. The ways that those who are coming to you truly want to serve. They want to help you with your calling. They want to work.

What I also had never seen before is that, especially for teen and college kids, you are not just getting one person, you are getting a herd of people. You only saw my niece, but her parents, aunts, grandma, friends, and especially her three younger sisters are now invested in your ministry.

She came home changed.

She knows your name, dear missionary. She has shared the stories you told. Our family now agonizes that children in your village have permanent brain damage because Tylenol isn’t available when they get a fever. The children that she spent a week feeding, playing with, and singing to? We know their names. A place on the globe, the place that is dear to you, is now dear to us.

I understand that this letter is still rather focused on the difference this trip made for her. It is rather “sent one” focused.

I guess what I am trying to say, is thank you. Thank you for opening your hearts to her. For sharing your story for the umpteenth time. For putting up with teens who refused to eat the food you worked so hard to provide, eating instead another granola bar (not my niece, but she shared stories of her teammates too!).

Before this summer, I only saw these trips through the lens of how much work they were for me on the field. What I didn’t grasp was how, like the loaves and fishes Jesus used to feed the masses, summer trips can feed the Great Commission. They can feed God’s heart for his people. They feed future generations of missions. That one week will ripple out through the years in ways you and I can’t imagine.

You might not remember my niece’s name because you will see several trips this summer. She’s a quiet girl. She’s the one who will hold the disabled four-year-old for hours and sing to them. She’s the one who now sees the value of learning the language because the quiet cook on your property? She wishes she could have talked to her.

She came home changed by the poverty she saw. She returned and the word she used more than another other to describe the people she served? Joy. She saw how God is not White and American and Well-educated. When the cook started to sing How Great Thou Art in your language and my niece sang it in English? She will carry that for the rest of her days.

The extra hours these trips cost you? The foolish questions the participants ask? The food they won’t eat? It is worth it. God took the diamond of summer trips and tilted it so I saw more of its beauty than I have before.

Thank you for hosting my niece.

Her loving aunt,

Amy

P.S. I still have opinions about short term trips. But they are a bit fuzzier than before. My overwhelming sense that I really knew what was the right way to “do missions” has been, um, challenged. Love will do that, won’t it? Slow me down enough to keep me really asking the questions and not just spouting off the same answers I have for years. I’m sorry if this letter is a bit all over the place. I’ve reworked it and reworked it. But I feel all over the place, so how can my words not be as well?

Where Did I Go Wrong?

When projects fail and goals go unmet, I’m quick to second-guess myself: Did God really lead me to this? Where did I go wrong? What did I miss along the way?

I wonder if that’s how the Israelites felt when they were wandering around in the desert, thirsty and lost. You know the story. When life seemed uncertain, their automatic response was to grumble and complain.

They demanded to know why Moses brought them out of Egypt to make their children and livestock die of thirst. They jumped straight from a dry mouth to a dead family. Fear made them believe that catastrophes lay ahead of them. They swallowed that lie and imagined it was true.

I’ve read these passages before and judged those silly Israelites. The Lord parted the waters for them just a few chapters before. How could they forget so easily? But when I read the story again today, I heard myself in their grumbling and complaining. Their question, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exodus 17:7), spoke to a deep uncertainty within me.

I’m in a wandering, wondering place right now. When I was sent home from Tanzania at the start of Covid, I left a trunk of my belongings with a dear friend. I assured her that I’d be back for them soon.

Somehow two years have passed. My friend has given away or used all of my carefully packed away things. I told her to because I don’t know when or if I’ll be back for them.

When the Israelites were wandering in the desert desperate for water, the Lord heard their cries. He provided water from a rock for the people to drink. I wonder if there’s a message in this miracle. Could God be telling the Israelites that He brings unexpected blessings from the hardest places? Could He be encouraging them to look for His life-giving presence in places that seem dead? Could He be teaching me the same thing?

Our brains have a built-in negativity bias. This means that we naturally pay more attention to negative experiences and tend to dwell on them more than positive experiences. So it’s pretty easy for me to look back over the last two years and tally up all my disappointments and frustrations.

But I know that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. And if He was a God who brought water from a rock thousands of years ago, then He can do the same thing today. Rather than grumbling and complaining about my rocky path, I could start looking for the ways that He’s provided for me in the dry places.

This isn’t natural. I don’t want to do it. I feel like I’ve earned the right to complain. I’m sure the Israelites did, too.

With the Holy Spirit’s prompting, I opened my journal and I started writing. Ten minutes later I had a list of 14 ways that God had provided for me over the last two years. I saw water rushing out of rocky places and was amazed that I’d missed it before.

Then I started to wonder if the Israelites looked at rocks differently after this miracle. Did they wait expectantly to see if God might show up and transform the rocks into something else? Did they get excited about the possibilities? Did they see a rock and remember God’s provision?

Maybe this is another part of the lesson. God provided water not only out of a hard place but also out of something that He knew the Israelites would be walking around for the next 40 years. God could have made water appear out of nowhere. Instead, He used a rock. Water from the rock would not only fend off their thirst that day, but perhaps it could also provide the Israelites with an object lesson to remind them of God’s presence every day of their lives.

I started to think about what I see on a daily basis that could serve as a reminder of God’s loving presence with me. I chose pens. Over the last two years, God has provided me with a writing ministry. He’s given me the words to write and opened doors to connect with amazing opportunities (writing for A Life Overseas being one of the first and best of those open doors!).

I asked the Holy Spirit to remind me each time I pick up a pen that God is able to do unexpected and glorious things in the hardest and most trying circumstances. And just because I know my own stubborn, forgetful heart, I wrapped tape around some of the pens in my house and wrote “The Lord is among us” on them. 

Is the Lord among us or not? He is. He is most certainly among His people. He’s been with me for the last two years and all the years before that. He’s been with me through the failed projects and the unmet goals. He’s been with me through the disappointments and the victories.

And He’s been with you the whole time too. He’s been there through all the ups and downs of following Him across borders and into foreign cultures. He’s been there through all the ministry roadblocks that these last two years of covid have thrown your way. And He is with you right now.

God’s loving presence takes the sting out of dashed dreams and unmet goals. In His hands, rocks become water, wandering builds character, and failures get reformed. He is at work among us, now and always.

Some Days Are Like That

One of my favourite stories of all time is Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. If you haven’t read it, you really should! This post is written with thankfulness to Judith Viorst, the author of Alexander’s bad day, who taught me many years ago that, “Some days are like that.”

The Very Bad Day

We lost power last night and it was so hot without the fan that I couldn’t sleep. Then my neighbour’s rooster decided to take advantage of the quiet fan-less night and crow under my window till dawn. I definitely couldn’t sleep. This morning my clothes on the line still weren’t dry so I had to wear damp underwear and I could tell it was going to be, as Judith Viorst says, a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

At breakfast my husband ate Weet-Bix and my son ate Cocoa Puffs and I picked the corn flakes, and there were ants in my corn flakes. My powdered milk was lumpy even though I used a whisk.

I think I’ll move back to Florida.

On the way to the market my son kicked off his flip flop and it fell into the ditch. I tried to be nice and get it out but the ditch is a sewer and I couldn’t reach his shoe with a stick and it made me gag. I cried and yelled at him for kicking off his shoe and he cried and yelled at me for being a mean mom.

Before heading out to teach kindergarten co-op I forgot to make coffee and so forgot to bring craft supplies. Instead of an educational activity to finish off the lesson, I sent the kids to the playground for 45 minutes because who can remember craft supplies with no coffee?

When I got home I checked e-mail and saw a message from another missionary mom. I’d told her I was tired and it’s hard to parent and home school my son overseas, and she said she was pregnant and homeschooling three children when she was overseas. Yeah well that’s nice for you, I thought. And even though Jesus says to love your enemies, I hated her for being able to do what I can’t. I’m pretty sure Jesus wasn’t talking about other missionary moms.

I think I’ll move back to Florida.

For lunch I ate tofu and rice for the 186th time in a row. My food was dry so I added hot sauce, but I added too much and it burned my mouth and made my eyes water.

It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

After lunch we called for an update on our visa renewals and after months of waiting and promises that today would be the day, we were told to try again tomorrow.

Yeah well tomorrow I’ll be in Florida.

This afternoon the neighbours threw a party and parked motorcycles in front of our house and blocked the gate. I couldn’t open the gate. I hate the neighbours.

For dinner I ate tofu and rice for the 187th time in a row because the cargo planes are down for maintenance and the shops ran out of flour and chicken.

In the evening the power went out during my shower and I had to stand in the pitch black hoping there was still fuel in the generator so I didn’t have to go to sleep with shampoo in my hair. My husband said there was no fuel so I had to rinse as best I could with the water still in the pipes. I cried in the dark. I hate the dark.

When I went to bed the rooster crowed beneath my window. I really hate that rooster.

It’s been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

But Judith Viorst is right — “Some days are like that.”

Even in Florida.

 

Originally published October 13, 2017.

Because There Just Aren’t Enough Words to Describe the Overseas Experience, Here Are a Few More for Your Lexicon

airplane wing and clouds

Over the years I’ve created a collection of new terms for old things—things that are common to traveling and living overseas but that haven’t had common labels. Most of them have come to me while I’m in the air, looking out the window or thumbing through an inflight magazine.

I’ve posted these before on my blog, but I’ve yet to hear anyone use a single one in casual conversation, so I’m thinking they need a broader audience. I hope that some of these can make their way into your vocabulary. I’ll keep my ears open.

bait and glitch
You find a cheap plane ticket online and go through all the steps to buy it, double and triple checking all the details, and then when you select “confirm,” you get that encouraging message that says, “The fare you’ve selected is no longer available.” Maybe it’s because the search site wasn’t up to date or because someone else recklessly grabbed the last seat while you were prudently making up your mind. If it’s the latter, it just proves the old standard, “Time flies when you’re choosing flight times” (or something like that).

direct flight to the dog house
This is what you receive after you proudly show the money-saving itinerary—that you just booked—to your spouse, and said spouse points out that it includes a 14-hour layover (also known as a “wayover”) and that you and your four children will need to collect all checked baggage between each of the five connecting flights. Travel to the doghouse does accumulate frequent-flyer miles, but they can only be redeemed for undesirable trips, such as to overnight stays on the living-room couch.

metapacking
Carrying a suitcase in a suitcase so that you can bring back more stuff than you take. This can be as simple as a duffle bag inside another piece of luggage, but in its purest form, it is a checked bag precisely fitting inside another checked bag. The term metapacking can be extended also to encompass using a cheap or broken suitcase to transport items one way and then disposing of that suitcase after you arrive. Seasoned travelers always keep a broken suitcase lying around.

eurekathing
Something you find inside your luggage when you start packing—something you haven’t seen since your last trip. Discovering it brings out such responses as “Oh, that’s where that is,” or “I do have one of those.” A wad of ten-dollar bills is eurekaching, a piece of jewelry, eurekabling.

tetrisness
The feeling of accomplishment one feels after packing every necessary item just right in a suitcase. A landmark study out of the University of Gatwick-Hempstead shows that tetrisness activates the same portion of the brain as when one successfully folds a fitted sheet.

TSAT
The TSAT (pronounced Tee Ess Ay Tee or Tee-Sat) is an oral exam in which family members yell questions and answers from room to room concerning Transportation Security Administration regulations:

Is it the 3-1-1 rule or 1-1-3 . . . or 3-2-1 or 9-1-1? Does deodorant count as a liquid? What about wet wipes? Or snow globes? Or chocolate-covered cherries? Can I take nail clippers in my carry-on? What about tweezers? Duct tape? Scotch tape? Chopsticks? Toothpicks? Javelins?

fortnightlies
Countless requests—for coffee, a get-together, or a meal—made by friends who have just realized that your departure for a long or permanent stay is only. two. weeks. away.

vontrappish
How you feel when you’re ready for bed the night before a morning flight, with all your luggage placed neatly (more or less) next to the door—lined up like the von Trapp family ready to sing “So Long, Farewell.” You may have mixed feelings, and you may or may not sleep. In extreme cases, you hear yourself humming the tune.

flotsam and jetsam and thensam
The abundance of things that people give you and your children right before you leave for the airport or get on the plane. This includes gifts, souvenirs, snacks, word-find and sudoku books, coloring books with a four-pack of crayons, and those faces with metal shavings that you form into a beard with a magnet.

disafearance
Leaving your tightly locked up (?) house thinking you might have left the iron on (even though you don’t remember having done any ironing) is one thing, but watching your hand zip your passport into the front pocket of your backpack and then just two minutes later checking to see if it’s actually there because you’re afraid that you didn’t in fact zip your passport into the front pocket of your backpack but instead, due to a muscle spasm, may have opened the car window and tossed your passport onto the shoulder of the highway—or what if it just spontaneously combusted, leaving no smoke or ashes? That’s disafearance.

duffling
Upon hearing the counter agent at the airport say that your checked bag is three pounds overweight, you feign frantic action by grabbing zippers, patting your pockets, turning in circles, and saying things such as “I could . . . ,” “Well, I . . . ,” and “What can . . . ,” hoping that the ticket agent will take pity on you and say it’s OK. Be careful that your duffling isn’t too aggressive or the agent will actually let you follow through on solving the problem.

terminal fowliage
Birds that have somehow gotten into an airport and fly around amongst the rafters and indoor trees. Birds stuck inside a place where people come to fly. Sense the irony?

flaggle
A flaggle of tourists is a group of middling to senior travelers, led by a tour guide with a flag and bullhorn. The flag is akin to the kind I and my friends used to bolt onto our banana-seat bikes when we were kids. Oh, if only we’d had megaphones, too. You can tell that the flaggle is on the return leg of their trip when you see them bringing home food and souvenirs packed in large, branded gift bags or boxes with tied-on handles.

making a this-line’s-not-for-you-turn
After standing patiently in an airport line for fifteen minutes and realizing that it doesn’t lead where you need to go, you nonchalantly walk away—as if standing in lines is simply your hobby and you’re now looking for another place to queue up for more pleasant amusement. (Aren’t you glad you came early?)

shuftle
The standing-room-only shuttle bus at some airports that shuffles passengers on the tarmac from plane to airport terminal (or vice versa). This word can also be used as a verb.

Sadow-Plath effect
Happens in the moment when you accidentally kick a pulled carry-on with your heel and it flips onto one wheel and mo.men.tar.i.ly balances before flipping completely over or wobbling back to both wheels. This brief pause at the top of the carry-on’s arc is actually a tiny breach in the space-time continuum, caused by the rapid upturn of the luggage in combination with the forward motion. The effect is named after Bernard D. Sadow, inventor of the wheeled suitcase, and Bob Plath, creator of the rollaboard.

glizing
Glizing is the act of experiencing the wonderfully smooth exponential forward motion as you stride confidently on an airport’s moving walkway. This only happens when you’re not in a hurry, in part because, as studies show, the walkways do little to speed you up, and often slow you down.

BlackNSquare
When you try to describe your piece of luggage at the lost-luggage counter, all you can remember is that it’s part of the BlackNSquare line made by the Yuno company. Question: “What Kind of luggage do you have?” Answer: “Yuno, BlackNSquare.” Yuno also makes the upscale models BlackNSquare with Handle and BlackNSquare with Wheels.

preseating
To sit down, with plenty of time before boarding, able to relax because your bags are checked, you’re definitely at the right gate, and a quick look shows that your passport is right where it’s supposed to be. You take a deep breath and contemplate the hopeful possibilities of your trip. You can charge your phone, read, or people watch. You’re free to walk about and might grab a cup of coffee, browse the bestsellers in the bookstore, or window shop expensive luggage and watches . . . and on the way, you can go glizing.

passenger of imminent domain
This is the person directly in front of you on a plane who, upon sitting down, immediately pushes their seat back as far as it will possibly go. Intuiting that something must be hindering it, they try to force it back farther, again and again. There. Must. Be. Something. Keeping. The. Seat. From. Reclining completely flat (possibly your knees). Finally, leaving the seat fully back, they lean forward to watch a movie.

chipillow
The bag of snacks that you bring from home that bloats up once you reach higher altitudes. With care, it can be used to rest your head on, due to the fact that it’s in the same food group as the neck croissant.

FASL
Flight Attendant Sign Language. Includes such specialized hand maneuvers as indicating the exits by extending the arms to the side, palms forward, pointing with two fingers, Boy Scout style, and mimicking the pulling of life-vest inflation cords using the crook of the thumb and first finger with the other fingers fanned out, subliminally showing that everything will be “OK.”

single-entré seating
The rows in the far back of the plane where you no longer get a choice between the brazed beef medallions over a wild-rice pilaf and the broiled fish and mashed potatoes. You get the fish.

cartnering
This is the act of hovering next to the food cart as it’s making its way down the aisle. Timing a trip to the bathroom with the distribution of meals is truly an art form, and it is best done passive-aggressively (such as by wearing a smile while dancing from one foot to the other).

Silent Gotcha Port
The “SGP” is the small screw hole on the seat armrest that looks as if it must be the place where you plug in your earphones.

Queen Ramona’s Veil
The dark mesh curtain that separates business class from coach. Its main purpose is to protect those in the front of the plane from projectiles thrown by the riotous mob behind, who are known to catapult dinner rolls at each other using slingshots fashioned from their airline-provided sleep masks and who sometimes divide into teams for prolonged games of ultimate Frisbee. In small planes, the curtain, only a few inches across and resting next to the cabin wall, is known as Queen Romana’s Veilette. Its purpose is purely psycho-social.

The term “Queen Ramona’s Veil” comes from the name commonly used for the wood-and-iron gate employed by the overly paranoid and little-known British Queen Ramona II to separate her highness from the filthy hordes sometimes present in the steerage portion of her royal sailing ship. Mention of the barrier is made in the English dirge “The Death of Queen Ramona at the Hands of the Filthy Hordes.” (Can you tell that I rarely get to fly business class?)

seatemic (pronounced see-uh-tehm-ic)
Your connecting flight is delayed and you have no time to spare so when it lands you run as fast as you can (and by “as fast as you can” I mean a combination of running, jogging, speed walking, walking, stopping, and wheezing) across the airport and arrive at your gate just as they’re closing the door and you speed down the gangway and board the plane and force your carryon into something close to an available slot and find your seat and quickly strap in so the plane can take off. . . . Now all you can do is sit still, sweating, with your heart racing and your veins coursing with adrenaline. Your body is in a fight-or-flight response but something tells you this is a different kind of flight. If you are suffering from these symptoms, you are seatemic.

no-watch list
Movies on this list are not allowed to be shown in-flight. The list includes Red EyeAirborneNon-StopFlightplanSnakes on a PlaneQuarantine 2: Terminal, and Plane of the Living Dead. And, yeah, some of these shouldn’t be shown on the ground, either.

altivism
Gazing out of an airplane window, seeing the new landscape below, and feeling joyfully overcome with the real and imagined possibilities.

post-ping che-klatches
The sound of seatbelt buckles popping open the instant the plane stops at the gate and passengers hear the OK-now-you-can-get-up tone. This allows those in window seats to immediately grab their carryons, put them where they were just sitting, and wait, hunching under the overhead bins.

welwelwel-ke-come
This is the glorious sound of the immigration agent thumbing through your passport looking for an empty page—and then adding the stamp that says you’re free to enter.

dyslistening
The condition by which your over preparation for answering an expected question in another language overwhelms your auditory senses and you answer the query you’ve anticipated, no matter what is actually said, as in responding to “How many would you like?” with “Yes, but no ice, please.”

visatrig
The act of trying to predict which agent in the office will be the most likely to give you your visa or other important document and then conducting complex calculations concerning the number of people in line in front of you to see if you will get the agent you hope for. A domestic version of this is sometimes encountered in the DMV.

unchewing
The physical and mental reaction that occurs when you realize that the chocolate-covered, cream-filled donut that you just took a bite of in your host country is in fact not a donut and that’s not chocolate and the filling might very well have gristle in it.

[photo: “Fight over Slovenia,” by (Mick Baker)rooster, used under a Creative Commons license]

3 Ways to Help Your TCK with Language Learning

Sponges

Has anyone ever referred to your Third Culture Kid as a language sponge? Maybe you picture your child’s brain effortlessly slurping up nouns, adjectives, and conjugations, lisping in perfect Mandarin or Swahili.

That’s what we pictured. After all, my husband and I love languages. Our kids were born in the mission field. Why wouldn’t they learn?

However, when we moved to our second country of service, we quickly realized our daughter, Ashi, was not in a very spongey, language-learny mood. It would take all our language learning knowledge and experience, plus a whole lot of prayer and creativity, to support her and her brother’s learning journeys.

Along the way, we discovered three important ingredients to successful language learning in kids. This “secret sauce” includes exposure, structure, and inspiration.

1. Exposure

The fact is, language learning takes time–hours and hours of meaningful exposure on a consistent basis.

According to the US State Department[i], it takes 600-700 hours of classroom instruction to reach fluency in a level 1 (easy) language. And that’s for adults, who, contrary to the sponge theory, may learn and retain languages faster than children[ii].

The need for more time in the target language is one reason some workers send their children to local schools. But what if attending a local school isn’t a good fit for your family or your child? What if you homeschool or send your child to an international school?

That was our situation. We knew we’d have to get creative. In order to support our young language learners, we decided to:

  • Move outside the city, where people have more time for a cup of tea and a chat, and where kids aren’t constantly attending one after-school program after another.
  • Set up activities that attract children. A trampoline, kiddie pool, or pick-up game of soccer are great ways to encourage positive social interaction.
  • Seek friends with kids, especially those who are not currently learning English.
  • Hire household help—specifically a friendly, chatty helper!
  • Learn songs in the local language.
  • Enroll our children in extracurricular activities taught in the target language.

Other missionaries we know have also incorporated these ideas:

  • Instituting a family language hour, where only the target language is spoken—make sure this is fun and low-pressure!
  • Allowing children to watch cartoons in the local language.

What if your child is getting lots of exposure but still asks your neighbor lady the equivalent of, “Please, I give you water me?” What’s a missionary mom (or dad) to do? That brings me to the second crucial ingredient to language learning: structure.

2. Structure

The idea that children are language sponges who learn easily with zero instruction is somewhat of a myth. Obviously, babies learn languages without taking grammar classes. But that process also takes three or four years!

Studies suggest that very young children are better at doing what experts call “acquiring” language, which is absorbing it by hearing and using it in everyday life rather than receiving explicit instruction[iii]. But this requires many, many hours of high-quality, contextualized exposure each day. That’s hard to get outside a kindergarten classroom, where kids spend eight hours a day hearing simple songs and poems, doing calendar work, and engaging in thematic play.

Most language learners, regardless of age, benefit from specific instruction.

If your target language is a common one, you can find wonderful resources for this, online and/or in person. Think talkbox.mom, Rosetta Stone, Duolingo, YouTube, a local language center, etc. But what if your target language is a little more obscure? And what if available in-person language learning options aren’t working for your child?

To meet our children’s need for structured instruction, we hired a local teacher but designed the lessons ourselves. Specifically, we:

  • Let the kids choose scenarios to play with their teacher. Some favorites included bargaining in the marketplace and choosing what to wear in the morning.
  • Gamified everything. We created gameboards on Canva, played Go Fish with verb cards we drew ourselves, played Simon Says, used Uno cards to practice numbers and colors, added sentences to an ongoing story, and anything else we could think of. The key is to pick just one grammar point and a handful of verbs and nouns, and use the game as an excuse to build sentences. Always start with something that is at or only slightly above your child’s language level. Briefly review the grammar and vocab, explain the game, and play!
  • Had our language helper record our children’s stories, or stories our kids knew, as well as verb conjugations, and listened to these in the car.
  • Engaged in structured language practice at home using games, translation drills, and simple writing exercises.

Maybe you’re still learning your target language, too. That’s okay! A little goes a long way, so share what you know, even if you’re only one step ahead of your kids. Just a few months after beginning this regime, our son was starting to talk outside the classroom.

Ashi, however, was still lacking the final ingredient: Inspiration.

3. Inspiration

There is a hidden obstacle to language learning. Teaching professionals call it the Affective Filter. According to FluentU, an Affective Filter is, “the invisible, psychological filter that either aids or deters the process of language acquisition[iv].” In other words, it’s the stress, anxiety, boredom, and lack of confidence that makes language learners go blank anytime they hear a new word.

After some prayer and observation, we realized this was our daughter’s struggle. Ashi is sensitive about being the center of attention. Language learning felt like a performance to her. Her independent personality balked at that.

We needed to locate low-pressure opportunities for Ashi to be her unique self and practice language. Since she loves feeling capable and helping others, we turned to our neighbors.

Ashi helped my friend with her baby, a group of old women with their rabbit farm, and another lady with food prep and dishwashing. She helped our helper cook local dishes. When she complained about going to language classes, we remained firm, but we let her choose a tasty local treat or favorite activity afterward if she kept a positive attitude during class.

After several months, our daughter’s relationship with the language changed. She began to feel proud of her ability to communicate. Although she often tells groups of people she doesn’t speak the language, the fact is, she does.

Don’t Say You Can’t

One day, about a month ago, our family walked into a labyrinthian marketplace full of textured rugs, fake Aladdin lamps, and exotic solid perfumes. After about 15 minutes, I realized I had lost Ashi. I found her in a shop that sold pens covered in mirror “jewels.”

“That’s too expensive,” she was telling the shopkeeper in Arabic. “Knock the price down for me a little.” I looked at the shopkeeper, a wrinkled, bent-over man with a cane. He was grinning.

Ashi got her discount.

This morning I asked if Ashi has any advice for her fellow TCKs. She mentioned playing Go Fish and making friends. But this, she says, is her best advice ever:

“Don’t say that you can’t!”

 

[i] https://www.state.gov/foreign-language-training/

[ii] https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-child-language/article/age-and-learning-environment-are-children-implicit-second-language-learners/457C069A5339D656788E7E8D217B2A3A

[iii] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/16/parenting/children-language-development.html#:~:text=Mu%C3%B1oz%20makes%20the%20point%20that,Like%20Dr.

[iv] https://www.fluentu.com/blog/educator-english/affective-filter/

On Launching Kids From Great Distances

“You’ve given her roots, now give her wings.”

That is what they all say.

“God loves her more than you, trust Him with her.”

That is what the spiritual and wise will advise.

As mothers and fathers choosing to live and work far from our passport countries and most of their institutions of higher learning, the day of sending a child out of the nest to college can feel even more daunting for us.

I think we can all agree that it starts out quite daunting enough.

While those words of advice can sound cliché, we need people to remind us that this is the nature of the beast. We don’t have these children in order to keep them under our roofs and thumbs for a lifetime. We can usually be rational enough to agree that we raise our children fully intending to launch them; we want to produce self-sustaining, responsible, grown-up-ish individuals.

When I am not so rational, I believe I have been tricked, like someone sped up time and I wasn’t given my full 18-year allotment. In those irrational moments I think about destroying the passport, bolting the doors, refusing to buy an airline ticket, sobbing until my blood vessels burst, or thrashing on the ground with my arms gripping her ankles like a vice. I’ve heard things like this happen from time to time. (Ahem.)

In my own upbringing I was given two free “backs.” That is to say, the first two launch missions were aborted and I returned, tail between my legs, begging for mercy and access to Mom and Dad’s refrigerator. It was the third try that finally stuck, when I was 25 years old.

I remember my parents not seeming too terribly annoyed at having me back. In many ways they seemed happy to have me. As we are launching our second almost fully functional adult right now, I am understanding the patience my parents exhibited upon my return(s). Our kids grow up too quickly, and it never feels very comfortable to transition to the next phase. Change is hard. Letting go is harder. Drastically changing our long-held role, a role that can be a part of our very identity, is difficult albeit necessary.

Many years ago when my daughter was little, I was explaining to her that my new job required me to travel and I’d be gone more often. She listened without comment. I finally said, “Change is really hard, honey.” She thought about that a moment and said, “I agree. I hate change. I like dollars.”  Even though our conversation never connected in any meaningful way, we found agreement.

Change stinks. 

This stuff is painful. The idea that I will be 3,000 miles away without any knowledge of her comings and goings strikes panic in my Momma heart. It seems I’ve been telling myself that knowing where she is all the time is what keeps her safe. Now, I know that is ridiculous, but it is true nonetheless. I thought it might get easier with the second child. My husband and I are finding it just as daunting the second time around.

In a letter I wrote to her earlier this year, I said,

“When they hand you a baby after you have performed miraculous feats of superhuman proportions to bring that little person into the world, they don’t tell you about what is coming: the greater pain of letting them go. They don’t tell you that those hours and hours of contractions and pushing are just the warm-up, eighteen years early, for the real pain.”

Our job as parents doesn’t end here, but it changes drastically. We hope to take the advice of our friends and give our girl wings as we look to God, who loves her even more than we do, and trust Him with her future and ours.

 

Originally published November 12, 2013