We launched to India as newlyweds. After an 18-hour bus ride into the Himalayan mountains, we strapped ourselves into two giant backpacking backpacks and walked into a village. Several years, two kids, and many life lessons later, we found ourselves wondering how to help our kids love the country where they were born.
Our kids had been through more than their share of stress and trauma. Could we stay in India anyway? One thing was clear: we needed to make some changes. Whether you’re a new missionary or looking for ways to help your family re-bond with your host country, here are seven things we’ve found that help.
1. Be a Tourist.
I know, I know. You probably spend a lot of time trying not to look like a tourist. You want people to see that you live here. That you’re permanent. I get it. We lived in India for seven years, and we didn’t see the Taj Mahal until year six!
But the thing is, celebrating the unique things in your host country is unlikely to ruin your witness. On the contrary, it stimulates the economy and gives you things to talk about. So go see that interesting monument. Take that camel safari. Buy the keychain made in China that says “Thailand” on it. Make memories in your host country, and your love for the place will grow.
2. Plan Regular Breaks.
This is especially important if your ministry assignment is in an intense or underdeveloped area. And it can be an easy thing to neglect. When we lived in India, it was 14 hours away by bus to Anywhere Else, so we pretty much stayed home.
However, once we realized our kids needed more, we had to get creative. We found local places to take breaks—a hot spring, a hotel with a pool, a restaurant that served pizza without garam masala on it. As it turned out, my husband and I needed more, too.
Taking breaks calms the brain and nervous system and gives you a bird’s-eye view on problems. It’s like a giant reset button, giving you the mental fortitude to tackle your tasks with fresh energy.
3. Spend A Little Money.
This might sound materialistic at first glance. But here’s where I’m coming from: when my husband and I first launched to India, we were afraid to buy knives and a cooking pot, lest we look rich. Another friend of mine was advised by coworkers not to buy any furniture for the same reason.
It’s important to consider the economic situation of your friends and neighbors, and of the host country as a whole. But if a small luxury would save you time and frustration, and if it won’t specifically hinder your witness, go for it! Once Joshua and I finally got set up in a home, we were complimented by all the neighborhood dadijis (grandmas) for providing for ourselves. We had graduated from wandering trekkers to normal people.
I try hard to be neutral and chill when it comes to cultural misunderstandings. But certain things break through and offend me to my core. In India, our neighbors had the habit of blaming mothers for everything that went wrong with children—from mosquito bites to major injuries—whether or not the mother was within a 20-mile radius of her kid at the time.
This violated my hidden cultural assumptions: Mothers instinctually know how to parent; good mothers don’t get told what to do, because they already know; good mothers don’t want their children to be injured, so communities should always reassure rather than blame. The message I got when I was blamed for everything was this: “You are a terrible mother. Also, we don’t like you.”
It was hard to forgive and let go of my offendedness, because it just made so much sense! But once I did forgive, I came to understand the Indian mindset: Mothers do not instinctually know how to parent, and we should pressure and give advice, lest they mess things up. If we don’t say anything, it’s because we don’t care. In other words, my Parvata friends were actively caring about me and trying to help me do my job well.
Forgiving gives you permission to keep seeing the good in people. Apply grace liberally!
5. Temporarily suspend some boundaries.
Before launching to India, we read a wonderful article called, “Bonding and the Missionary Task,” by Brewster and Brewster. That article was second only to the Bible in our initial mission strategy. As the Brewsters suggested, we packed very light—hence the two backpacks. We used only public transportation. And we lived with a local family.
We lived with less privacy than we wanted. A lot less. And you know what? That transparency and dependence on the local community endeared us to each other! Even now, we consider each other family.
6. Make sure you put important boundaries back!
We should have gotten our own house, bought a kitchen table, and driven our own car just a smidge earlier than we did. About four years earlier.
Temporarily living with lowered boundaries can help you bond with people. Obliterating your boundaries permanently will lead to burnout. You will have a lot of trouble being “lights of the world” if the unique “flavor” of your family is watered down because you’re trying to be like everybody else. Take it from a family who knows!
7. Find a Friend.
This is tip numero uno, my very best advice. I had many friends and adoptive family members. But it was finding two ladies to be my real, genuine friends that cemented my love for India forever.
Darshika and Naina came from completely different backgrounds. One was relatively poor; the other ran a popular guest house. One was highly educated and driven; the other couldn’t read. One chose to follow Jesus; the other didn’t make that choice. But we connected. We got each other.
My husband, Joshua, has a handful of really good friends in our current location in North Africa. I can see how much it makes him love this place. Because the most important thing about a place, the thing that really helps you understand and love a place… is the people.
This is especially true for children. My kids want nothing more in life than to have real friends. So, whatever you need to do to find them, make sure each member of your family has one or two true, genuine friends. And do what you can to nurture those relationships.
In the end, circumstances beyond our control caused us to leave India earlier than we’d planned. But our efforts were not in vain. Even now, we and our kids have many happy memories from those colorful, spicy, intense seven years. And I can say with honesty that I still love, admire, and appreciate the people we lived and worked among.
And implementing these tips in our second host country has helped us thrive and adjust to normalcy more quickly.
My final piece of advice is this: Adjust your focus every day. Look for the good in your host country and its people, and apply grace to the rest. When Jesus gets ahold of people, that’s what He’s going to do anyway. And hopefully, by that same grace, we imperfect missionaries will get to play a part in His plan to bless the world.
Abigail Follows has lived on three continents and listened to the life stories of friends in three languages. She has been a cross-cultural missionary for 11 years. Abigail lives wherever God leads with her husband, two children, and cat, Protagonist. She recently released Hidden Song of the Himalayas, a memoir about her family’s seven years as missionaries in India. Find out more at www.abigailfollows.com.