Craig and his wife, Karen, along with their five children, served as missionaries in Taipei, Taiwan, for ten years before returning to southwest Missouri. His experiences, as well as conversations with other cross-cultural workers, have made him more and more interested in member care and the process of transitioning between cultures. Craig blogs at ClearingCustoms.net.
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.
When I was born, it was quite the event and a lot of really great people wanted to meet me, or so I’m told. Just a few years later, my kindergarten teacher praised me for being especially polite. And then, in grade school, I was awarded the red, white, and blue Good Citizen badge to wear on my day of honor. I guess I was a pretty big deal, but I’m not surprised, seeing how I was living at the very center of the earth.
Growing up, I remember that news from next door, no matter how trivial, was profoundly more important than what was going on anywhere else on the globe. Therefore, a friend who missed school because of the flu got more attention than a famine in Africa. Weather patterns focused on my home town, as well, as we prayed more for sunshine for a birthday party than we did for people in Asia facing a typhoon.
So it’s no wonder I grew up having to fight against selfish tendencies. Who can blame me, knowing how much God was fixated on me and those in my vicinity?
Somewhere along the way, though, I found out that there was a whole world out there, a world filled with people who were just as big a deal as me—people who missed school and had birthday parties and sometimes suffered calamities beyond my comprehension. Jesus loves all the little children of the world, adults, too, I learned, and he wants them to know about his love.
So as I built my life, getting an education, finding a job, and starting a family, I had an eye on the horizon, not content to stay within my tight borders. In time, I booked tickets from America to an uttermost part, and with my wife and children, stepped onto the plane. It was then that I traded my selfishness for selflessness and self-sacrifice and never looked back as I devoted myself to cross-cultural service.
Oh, that it were that easy.
In Genesis, God tells Cain to be wary, as “sin is crouching at the door,” ready to pounce like a wild animal. For me, self-centeredness is at my door, and it doesn’t hide and wait, it steps up and knocks, like an intrusive neighbor or a persistent salesman.
Knock, knock, knock.
No matter how far I’ve traveled, self-centeredness always knows my address and is able to relocate with me. Resisting that knocking is a daily challenge. And while I like to think that I usually ignore it, there are also times when I pull the door wide open and invite it in to sit with me on the couch. And there I am, at the center of the earth again.
When we first arrived at our new home in Asia, it was a temptation to think we’d arrived at the pinnacle of Christian service. Look at us! I got used to writing newsletters about exotic day-to-day happenings, sharing about our ministry, and eagerly anticipating answers to the prayer requests we emailed to supporters—supporters, those people who gave sacrificially to our work, to us, trusting we were worth the investment.
Before our move, we sold most of our possessions, and that was a good thing. Surely not having to keep up with the Joneses would help me focus less on myself. In a recent discussion of Eula Biss’s book Having and Being Had at Mockingbird, CJ Green quotes a missionary as saying “Americans spend their entire lives ministering to things.” “Her point,” Green explains, “was that material goods tend to distract from matters of the heart and soul, whether it’s the home you’re constantly renovating, or the phone you keep updating, or the car always in need of fixing.”
Yes, that’s true. But ministering to people rather than things still gave me enticements to elevate myself. I was American but not like those Americans. I may have left materialism behind (OK, not really), but it was easily replaced by more spiritual forms of self-focus. How does my ministry compare to that of other cross-cultural workers around me, and around the globe? How much does God value me and what I’m able to do? How much effort is Satan concentrating on me to stop my threats to his kingdom? How much more strategic is my work in this country, in this city, in this neighborhood?
And then, from time to time, when we travelled back Stateside, we got to speak on stages, attend carry-in dinners hosted in our honor, and accept thank yous and donations. And we were treated like royalty at the homes where we stayed. One time, someone even gifted us a trip to Silver Dollar City.
Knock, knock, knock.
OK, now here is where I need to interject something. Some of you are already feeling guilty about receiving funds, taking vacations, and the like, and it may sound as if I’m saying those things are the problem. They are not. The problem is the temptation to respond to them in the wrong way. It’s not as if removing all those things automatically makes that temptation disappear. The knocking can just move to a different door.
And to those of you who are underfunded or under-appreciated or worn out, to those who are praying for a hand up, not out of entitlement but out of need, please hear this clearly: Self-advocacy is not the same thing as self-centeredness. Self-care is not the same thing as selfishness. Self-compassion is not the same thing as self-importance. Being self-aware is not the same thing as being self-focused.
Ok, I needed to say that, but now back to me, because, you know. . . .
When we returned to the States for good, we got rid of most of our belongings again, but among the things we kept were a suitcase filled with been-there-done-that t-shirts and a desire to hit the ground running again. Reverse culture shock and a recession meant that we hit the ground at more of a slow crawl, but in time we made progress—and we now own an old house with plenty of repairs to be made, two cars that need upkeep, and several phones to update, upgrade, and replace. It’s hard not to be devoted to that ministry of things.
We like the community where our house is located. It has its own personality and the people here know each other and take pride in the neighborhood. We can see that in the Facebook page our neighbors use for sharing news and concerns. Their posts show us that there are lots of lost pets needing to be found. There are also lots of suspicious people walking around who look as if they don’t belong and are up to no good. We know that there are growing instances of crime in our area (rifling through unlocked parked cars and even a couple home intrusions and robberies), but there’s another kind if disturbance that’s got me concerned. It’s that pesky knocking at my door that’s started up again. I wish our neighborhood group would let me know when self-centeredness—and nationalism and ethnocentrism and egocentrism and other forms of meisms—are making the rounds, jiggling doorknobs and peaking in windows.
I like the community of cross-cultural workers we’re part of, too, those who are getting ready to go, those who are there, and those who have been. How about we share with each other the unwelcome guests doggedly trying to gain entrance into our homes? If your problem isn’t self-centeredness, I’m sure you have your own unwelcome visitors who keep dropping by. How about we keep an eye out for each other?
Knock, knock, knock.
Now If you’ll excuse me, I need to go and not answer my door.
That’s how long we served overseas. And next month, that will be how long since we moved back to the States.
This year, this month, is also a milestone for Joplin, MO, where we live. It’s the ten-year anniversary of the F5 tornado that devastated our city on May 22. I’ve mentioned the tornado here before, including in last year’s “Coming or Going during Turbulent Times,” but it was in reference to our repatriation. Now I’d like to talk about it in another context: dealing with difficulties that happen “there” when we’re “here.”
My memory’s not really clear on all the details, but I think one of our coworkers contacted us on the morning of May 23 (we were 13 hours ahead) to tell us to go to the Weather Channel online, that a storm had hit Joplin. He, his wife, and kids had also lived in Joplin and had family there, so this was much more than just “news” for them, as well. When we got on the Internet, we saw reports of major destruction. News anchors were saying that one third of the city, home to 50,000, was gone. Surely not! we thought. They showed video of the high school, saying it was “gone” too. But we could see it. There it was! They had to be exaggerating. And yet a storm chaser cried as he stood where houses had once been.
We tried to call our son who was a sophomore at the university in Joplin, but cell service was overwhelmed. He’d been at the house of our forwarding agents nearby when the storm hit. One of them was at work at the hospital but couldn’t get home because the cars in the parking lot were stacked into piles. When we finally got ahold of him, we’d seen more of the damage than he had, because of internet and electricity outages in Joplin. We were hesitant, though, to give many details for fear we were wrong.
As it turned out, the high school was gone, even though many of the walls were still standing. Also destroyed or damaged beyond repair were five other schools, the hospital where our forwarding agent worked, a Wal-Mart, the Home Depot, and Academy Sports. The city of 50,000 suffered a horrific amount of devastation from the rain-rapped, multi-vortex tornado—up to one mile wide and on the ground for 22 miles: 161 people killed, 4,000 residential dwellings destroyed, an estimated 9,200 people displaced, 553 businesses destroyed or severely damaged.
The destruction made the news in Taiwan, though most of our friends there didn’t know that that was our home town. It was a big topic of conversation for us as we gathered updates. We were also preparing for our move back to Joplin in a month. It was quite a stressful time.
One day on the way back from visiting my daughter’s school, as I neared the steps to the MRT, I saw a breeze catch some leaves on the sidewalk and swirl them in a circle. It was a small thing, but it filled me with emotion and I turned around and jogged quickly back to the school. I found the PE teacher, a friend (all of the teachers there were our friends), and told him how hard the last few days have been. He said he hadn’t realized how much it had affected us—neither had I—and he prayed for me and my family and the people of Joplin.
Knowing how much the movement of some scattered leaves had bothered me helped me understand how much, much, much more the people in Joplin were going through. My anxiety couldn’t compare because I wasn’t there. But oh, how I wished I were there, to help and console and listen and share in the stories unfolding. Simply to be present.
It’s hard to be here when bad things happen there. Sometimes it’s while we’re overseas and tragedy hits family and friends back home. Sometimes we’ve returned and tragedy hits family and friends back at our other home. It’s hard when you’re so far away.
Though the tornado had such a large impact, it wasn’t the most difficult distant event for us personally while we were abroad. Two years after our relocation to Taiwan my wife’s brother died suddenly from a massive stroke. Because of schooling and the cost of plane tickets, just my wife and young daughter travelled back for the funeral. Two years later, my father died from pneumonia. I flew back for the funeral by myself. And then, a year before the tornado, my wife’s mother died, also from pneumonia. My wife and oldest son (who was already stateside for college) attended her funeral. All very difficult times for us.
When we got the news that our parents were ill, we hurriedly made plans to travel to be with them, but in both instances, they passed away before we arrived. My father was initially placed on a respirator, but when he seemed to recover, I delayed my planning for the trip. Then he relapsed, went back on the respirator, and died soon thereafter. My wife found out that her mother had died after her plane landed in California.
At my father’s visitation, several people told me how happy they were that they’d been able to talk with him during that short window when he was better. I must say that I resented that they, instead of me, had been able to have those face-to-face conversations with him. But while I still regret my absence, I’m now glad for all those he got to talk with. He was far from alone.
As a cross-cultural worker, I served under the banner of Matthew 28:19, the “Great Commission,” a passage that is followed by what many have called the “Great Promise”: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (NIV). It is a great comfort to know that Jesus is with us as we serve overseas. It is a great comfort to know that Jesus is with us whatever our vocation, wherever we are. And while we often look to this promise for the miraculous fruit it will bear as we spread the gospel, it is his presence, not his actions, that he pledges. He will be with us. He is with us.
It is a great comfort to know that he is with them, too.
He was with my father through my mom and sister and our neighbors who visited him in the hospital, encouraging him in the ICU. He was with my wife’s brother and mother and other family members through those in the community who gathered around them and ministered to them. He was with the people of Joplin through the first responders and medical workers attending to their injuries. He was with Joplin through the churches and volunteers (177,000 who registered in the first two years following the storm), handing out meals and supplies and cleaning up tons of debris. He was with our oldest son through our sending church and friends who were already looking out for him in our absence. And he was with our second son, who was attending university an hour and a half away, through friends we knew from college who checked in on him for us as storms continued to roll through the area.
And even when bad things happen and no other person is around, Jesus is there. How do I know it? Because he promised to always be close by, and he is trustworthy.
When hard things happen there while we’re here, we wish we were there, too. But we’ll never be all the places we wish we could be. That’s why we depend on others to be there for us. And we lean on Jesus, the one who is here and there and everywhere, now and then and always. Remembering that doesn’t completely take away the distance and the hurt, but it does help. When we can’t be there, he can. When we’re not present, he is. He says it’s so, and that’s a promise we can rely on.
[photo: “Horizon,” by Sandro Bisotti, public domain]
When in Rome, sometimes we do as the Romans do just to fit in. Sometimes it’s out of necessity. Sometimes it’s because their way is actually better. And sometimes it’s because, well—Why not give it a shot?
Has your host culture offered you ways of doing things different from what you’re used to, ways you’ve tried on for size, sometimes finding out they fit you to a T? Mine sure did.
There was the time in Taiwan when we hired a local moving company to help us relocate to another apartment. Much to my surprise, the movers, small, wiry gentlemen, carried most of our things backwards. I don’t mean that they carried them from our new place to our old one. Rather, they carried them on their backs, with their arms wrapped around behind. Big boxes. Heavy boxes. Small appliances. Where I’m from, most of us carry things in front, next to our bellies, and often need help doing so. And we ache the next day. I’ve tried carrying boxes their way, and it works. Maybe I’m the one who’s been doing it backwards. (The movers also taught me how to hold the elevator door open with a folded-up piece of cardboard, but I digress.)
And then there’s that oft-photographed tourist attraction in Asia—the squatty potty. Now using a true squatty potty still falls into the “out of necessity” category for me, but what I have bought into is the method of restful squatting that many in Asia practice—with one’s heels on the ground instead of balancing on the balls of one’s feet, as we’re more apt to do “back home.” It’s more stable and you can hold the position much longer. I kind of like it. (By the way, it seems that the benefits of the squatty potty are standing up and being noticed—pun intended—even in the West: A squatting adapter for Western toilets has turned out to be one of the biggest successes pitched on that funder of all things revolutionary, NBC’s Shark Tank. But I’m digressing again.)
I’m sure you have some things to share, too. Does anything come quickly to mind? Maybe you’ve been intrigued by or adopted a “new” way of cooking or eating or building or treating sickness or showing hospitality or passing time or . . . Before you click to another page, can you type up one or two of those discoveries for the comments below? Join in and let’s celebrate together the wisdom and ingenuity of the people of our host cultures, and celebrate, at the same time, our own curiosity and willingness to learn.
Oh, and I’m thinking of one more thing from my time in Taiwan: Many people there routinely wore surgical masks out in public when they weren’t feeling well, to protect the health of others—on the street, on the bus, at work. Hmmmm, I wonder when that would ever come in handy anywhere else.
It’s not that I can’t swim, I just don’t do it often enough to cause an injury. I’m in physical therapy for my shoulder now, but I actually started PT because of pain in my hip, and then my shoulder started acting up. I wish I could say that my hip problem was caused by swimming, or by mountain climbing or power lifting. Instead, I think it’s from stepping out of my car the wrong way. And my shoulder? It might be caused by painting our dining room. Or who knows? It could have come from brushing my teeth with too much reckless abandon.
I know what you’re thinking. But before you say that it’s clear I’m getting old and my body’s falling apart, let me first say that it’s clear I’m getting old and my body’s falling apart.
So every day I go through my series of exercises. If only my routine included things like “reverse suspended monster crunches” or “overhead double infantry lifts.” But no, I have “supine gluteal sets” and “seated shoulder flexion towel slides at table top.”
It’s not quite the stuff of a Rocky training montage. (If you haven’t seen any of the five Rocky movies, seven if you add the two Creeds, then just think about any film that includes a music video of the main character getting ready for battle.) In preparation for the next ultimate fight, set to stirring music, Rocky boxes with frozen meat (da-da-daaa), rips off dozens of one-handed pull-ups and push-ups (da-da-daaa), lifts log chains over his head (da-da-daaa), guzzles raw eggs (da-da-daaa), and outruns a car (da-da-da-da-da-da-da-daaa-da-daaa).
Here’s the thing about training montages in the movies: They’re in the movies. When you’re tackling challenges in real life, it’s not bigger than life and it’s not condensed down to just a few minutes. Seen from the inside, the real stuff of montages can feel slow, tedious, and monotonous, not monumental.
Do you have things in your life abroad that are necessary but mundane, things you do day to day on the path to your goals but that lack the flair of a movie workout? Things such as prepping for departure? Settling into a culture? Language learning? Wading through red tape? Forming relationships? Chipping away at overwhelming problems?
Here’s the thing about serving overseas—and life in general: Rarely do our efforts merit a rousing soundtrack. Now if your cross-cultural experiences are film-worthy, I won’t stand in your way, and I’ll cheer when your theme song reaches its crescendo in the cinema. But for most of us, rather than a fully orchestrated “Gonna Fly Now,” an “Amazing Grace” played by a toy xylophone and a kazoo may seem more appropriate.
It makes me wonder about the music behind the Psalms, when they read, “to the tune of ‘A Dove on Distant Oaks'” or “to the tune of ‘The Death of the Son.'” Wouldn’t it be nice to know what those songs sounded like? I’m guessing they weren’t pulse-pounding tunes but more in line with the normal, coarse warp and woof of a life serving Jesus.
And here’s another thing: Much of what you do in cross-cultural work doesn’t culminate in a resounding, definitive victory. Often, it’s more of a series of little victories mixed in with little failures. You know, that two-steps-forward-one-step-back thing. (Or is it the other way around?)
Take language learning for instance. What if your language study doesn’t culminate with nationals saying that you sound more native-born than they do? What if your language study never seems to end? Yes, you’ll have agency- and self-imposed benchmarks to meet, but you may never get to where you wish you could be—or to the level of your coworkers. That’s OK. It’s not about matching their good, it’s about doing your good. Wherever your best efforts lead you, there’s a place for you in God’s work. I hope others believe that, too.
Much the same could be said about “learning” your new culture. It takes a lot more time and effort to be a resident of a country than to be a tourist. In A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, Eugene Peterson uses similar language when talking about the Christian life, making a distinction between those who are “tourists” and those who are “pilgrims.” He writes that most Christians “are impatient for results. They have adopted the lifestyle of a tourist and only want the high points.”
Peterson identifies the common assumption among Christians (and others)
that anything worthwhile can be acquired at once. We assume that if something can be done at all it can be done quickly and efficiently. Our attention spans have been conditioned by thirty-second commercials. Our sense of reality has been flattened by thirty-page abridgments.
“Thirty-second commercials.” “Thirty-page abridgments.” To those I could add three-minute training montages. But all of these may seem rather quaint compared to the norms of today’s culture (Peterson’s book was first published in 1980), with our current attention to Twitter and TikTok and all the other short bursts from social media.
Yes, the Christian life is “a long obedience.” And if I could paraphrase that, I’d say it could also be seen as a long series of short obediences. It’s exercising, stretching, pulling, pushing, lifting, running, jogging, walking, and resting, over and over again. It’s you, as a cross-cultural worker, doing all this with a God-ward aim, with your God-given abilities, at your God-given speed. It’s finishing your race, even if your finish line doesn’t end up being on foreign soil.
And it’s you, all the while, humming in the background the soundtrack of your own making.
(Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, InterVarsity, 1980)
If you’re like me, you saw at least one of the “those we lost” montages covering the deaths of notable people over the last year. And when you see some of the names and faces, you react for some with “I didn’t know they were gone” and for others with “That just happened this year?”
I recently saw a different kind of look back. It was a list of high-profile Christians who’d made the news for their failings in 2020. It included pastors, authors, and ministry leaders, among others. There were a couple I hadn’t heard about, but sadly, I thought of a couple more I could add. Not everyone’s transgressions took place last year, but that’s when some of them came to light.
Do cross-cultural workers also face temptations and sometimes give in to them? The answer, of course, is yes. Those abroad are not immune to temptations “common to man.” But added to that, new surroundings can present uncommon enticements seemingly around every corner—at least uncommon when compared to what used to happen at home.
Does the sin of cross-cultural workers sometimes become public? Does it sometimes cause them to leave the field? Does it sometimes bring their work into question? Does it sometimes destroy relationships? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Many of us have seen it happen, to fellow workers, to teammates, to family members, to friends, to ourselves.
I’ve prepared the following questions as a beginning-of-the-year gut check, with the aim of helping us stay off of someone’s 2021 those-we-lost list. Yes, that’s an excellent goal. But I also realize that for some, having their failings exposed is a necessary step leading to healing and restoration. Being on the list doesn’t have to be an indication of lostness. It can also be an opportunity for being found.
Join me in the asking and the answering:
Do I have the accountability I need?
When asked how I am, do I answer only with platitudes or just talk about my work?
Do I have partners who can accompany me when my work requires me to go to risky places?
Do I recognize the increased temptations that my environment brings?
Are my words or actions abusive—physically, verbally, emotionally, sexually, psychologically, or spiritually—to those whom I have power or authority over?
Am I misusing my authority by requiring others to divulge personal secrets to me?
Am I silent when I see others being mistreated?
Do my jokes and flippant words reveal dark places in my heart?
Am I caught up in a pattern of lying?
Am I giving my spouse and children the time and attention they need? Would I know if I weren’t?
Am I allowing my emotions to lead me into unhealthy relationships?
Do I have needed content filters on all my internet devices? Do I know what options are available?
Am I using “curiosity” as an excuse for sin?
Am I doing anything because of anger towards God?
Am I making financial decisions that I know are unethical or that others would question?
Am I “borrowing” from non-personal accounts with the intent to pay it back when I’m able?
Am I giving enough time to reading the Bible and contemplating it’s lessons so that it can challenge my suspect behaviors and tendencies?
Am I praying for strength to resist and strength to repent?
Am I participating in any activity that is prohibited by my organization, even though I believe it’s OK?
Am I willing, if necessary, to accept discipline from my leadership?
Am I giving enough attention to self care and to healthy ways of dealing with stress?
Do I believe that the extra stresses of my position give me more latitude to look for relief in ways that others wouldn’t be allowed to do?
Am I abusing alcohol, drugs, or medications? Am I addicted to pornography or gambling? Can I really stop any time I want to?
Have I ended a negative behavior only to fall back into it again?
Am I able to accept the truth regardless the source, even if it comes from someone in a lower position who hasn’t followed the proper channels or protocols?
Am I afraid that someone will find out the secret things I’m doing?
Am I hoping that someone will find out the secret things I’m doing?
Am I more apt to say, “But for the grace of God, there go I,” or “None of that could happen to me”?
Do I have someone trustworthy I can share my faults and fears with? Should I give that person a call?
Instead, I’ve created a much different kind of list. First, it is a collection of book titles—for cross-cultural workers—but there aren’t real books to go with the names. Second, these titles aren’t any kind of best, and probably shouldn’t even make it to the printing stage.
While compiling a list of made-up titles may not seem like much of an accomplishment, I do want to point out that, slowly but surely, I am moving up in the publishing world . . . sort of. Three years ago I created some clickbait headlines for expats that only lacked people to fill in their stories. Now I’ve come up with titles for whole books (see the progress?). This time, though, the stories don’t need to be filled in.
Solomon writes that “of making many books there is no end.” Let’s leave these books unmade:
Ethnocentrism, Ethnoshmentrism: Incontrovertible Proof that Your Customs Really Are the Best
How I Arrived in Country, Lost My Passport, Got Arrested, Wrestled a Crocodile, Built a Clinic, Organized a VBS . . . and Then Got Ready for My Second Day Abroad
This Airport’s Not My Home, I’m Just A-Passin’ Through: Wild and Wacky Tales from Gate C38
No Matter Where They Go, There They Are: An Anthropologist Circumnavigates the Globe to Chronicle the Unorthodox Migration Patterns of the Third Culture Kid
Can You Take a Look at This Rash? An Expat’s Illustrated Guide to Diseases That You’ve Never Heard of Before but Think You Might Have Caught but Probably Didn’t but Maybe You Did
The ABCs of XYZs: Overcoming Ministry Paralysis by Creating the Perfect Acronym
And They Said I Shouldn’t Go: How Cross-Cultural Work Saved My Marriage, Paid Off My Debts, and Otherwise Solved All My Problems
Oui, I Do Want Fries with That! Become Fluent in Any Language Just by Ordering at McDonald’s
Have Paintbrush Will Travel: 1001 Projects for Visiting Teams That Will Transform the World, Guaranteed!
Does This Spark Joy? Apply a Simple Formula to De-clutter Your To-Do List and Find Complete Serenity in Your Life Abroad
Red Rover, Red Rover, Send Form 2555 Right Over: Make Filing Taxes Overseas the Highlight of Your Year by Turning It into a Super-Fun Game
They Called Me “Little Jesus”: A Memoir
That Wasn’t So Hard: Lessons on Cross-Cultural Life from My Spring Break Overseas
From Expat to Flexpat: How to Up Your Game and Hopscotch Cultures like a Boss
Don’t Make Me Turn This Luggage Cart Around: More Traveling Advice for Parents, from the Author of the Bestselling It’s My Way or the Skyway and I Brought You into This Boarding Area and I can Take You Out
You can learn a lot by asking questions. You can learn a lot by answering them, too.
Recently, a young couple came to my wife and me with a list of questions for us. They were trying to figure out how to respond to the stirrings they were feeling about ministry opportunities and wondering if they should consider serving cross-culturally someday.
I think our answers fell somewhat short of profound, but I hope they were helpful. What struck me, though, was how much their questions got me thinking. Good questions have a way of doing that. They’re beneficial for the ones asking and for the ones pondering the answers, as well.
So if you’re considering going overseas, here’s a list of questions you could ask those who’ve already gone. And if you’re one of those who’s already gone, here’s a list of questions to help you reflect on the process that got you there. I hope some of them make you say, “Hmmmm, good question. Let me think about that.”
All of the questions below are concerned with the lead up to departure. For what comes after that, well, we can come up with those lists some other time.
When did you first consider serving overseas? When did you know for sure you should go? What did you hope to achieve by going? Did you and your spouse have the same level of commitment? What did your parents and/or children think? How were you supported? How did you raise support and how long did it take? How did you decide your income level? Did you have debt when you left? How did you choose your sending organization? What role did your church play? What would you have done if you’d not gone? What did you leave behind? What concerns did you have? What made you excited? What did you think success would look like? How would you describe your stage of life when you started your cross-cultural work? What sacrifices did you know you’d have to make? How long did you plan on staying? How did you decide where to go? What did you know about your future host country/culture? What kind of research did you do? Did you know anyone in the place you were heading to? What kind of support team did you develop? What did you pray for? What responses did you get to your prayers? What kind of “calling” did you respond to? How did you prepare? What was your main motivation for going? Who were your biggest cheerleaders? Did you have people close to you who didn’t want you to go? What hurdles did you need to overcome? What disappointments did you encounter? What plans for your children’s schooling did you make? What did you do with your “things”? Did you have any doubts? Did you have any previous cross-cultural experience? Did you study the language before going? How did you pick a ministry target? What verses in the Bible spoke to you? Who were your role-models? Why didn’t you go earlier? Why didn’t you wait longer to go? and . . . What questions did you have?
There’s something in architecture called a corbel. Even if you’ve never heard the name before, you’re probably familiar with what it is. A corbel is a bracket, sometimes ornamental, that projects out from a wall, providing support to a structure above. It allows that structure to extend out to where it couldn’t on its own.
Cross-cultural workers are the kinds of people who want to reach out far from home, who dream of going where no one has gone before. They’re often pioneering spirits who’d even go it alone, if that’s what it took—empowered only by their calling and their grit, gristle, and God-given abilities. That’s how the Apostle Paul did it, right? If I were more like Paul, I’d rely on God more and on people less . . . right?
Yes, at times, Paul stressed his independence. In his letter to the Galatian churches, he affirmed that his role as an apostle came directly from Jesus, not from his association with the other apostles:
But when the one who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I could preach him among the Gentiles, I did not go to ask advice from any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before me, but right away I departed to Arabia, and then returned to Damascus.
But Paul wasn’t a loner. He took partners with him on his missionary trips, and he also recognized the need for flesh-and-blood corbels to hold him up as he reached out, bearing the gospel. He valued the encouragement and comfort of others. He understood the importance of member care (pastoral care, nurture and development, tender care, that one safe friend).
When Paul finally met with the apostles in Jerusalem, Barnabas helped him by being his advocate, vouching for his dedication to Jesus. Later, Barnabas sought out Paul for his help in working with the church in Antioch, and the two were sent out by the church on Paul’s first missionary journey. It was during his trips and while he was a prisoner that Paul wrote his New Testament letters, often mentioning those who served to encourage him.
Near the end of his first letter to the church in Corinth, he wrote about “the household of Stephanus” (or Stephanas), who “devoted themselves to ministry for the saints,” and added,
I was glad about the arrival of Stephanus, Fortunatus, and Achaicus because they have supplied the fellowship with you that I lacked. For they refreshed my spirit and yours. So then, recognize people like this.
In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul told about how he even turned away from a God-sent opening for ministry because he needed to hear from Titus:
Now when I arrived in Troas to proclaim the gospel of Christ, even though the Lord had opened a door of opportunity for me, I had no relief in my spirit, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said good-bye to them and set out for Macedonia.
Then, in Macedonia,
our body had no rest at all, but we were troubled in every way—struggles from the outside, fears from within, But God, who encourages the downhearted, encouraged us by the arrival of Titus. We were encouraged not only by his arrival, but also by the encouragement you gave him, as he reported to us your longing, your mourning, your deep concern for me, so that I rejoiced more than ever.
While under house arrest in Rome, Paul wrote to Philemon, “I have had great joy and encouragement because of your love, for the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother.” He went on to address the subject of Onesimus, Philemon’s slave who had run away, had come to Paul, and had become a Christian. Paul was sending him back to Philemon, not as a slave but as a brother in Christ, even though Paul wrote, “I wanted to keep him so that he could serve me in your place during my imprisonment for the sake of the gospel.” Paul also looked forward to spending time with Philemon in the future, telling him to “prepare a place for me to stay, for I hope that through your prayers I will be given back to you.”
Still a prisoner, Paul wrote to the Colossians and the Philippians. He told those in Colossae that Aristarchus, Mark, and Jesus (called Justus) were the only Jewish Christians still working with him, saying “they have been a comfort to me.” And to the Christians in Philippi, he told of his plans to send to them Epaphroditus, whom he described as
my brother, coworker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to me in my need. Indeed, he greatly missed all of you and was distressed because you heard that he had been ill. In fact he became so ill that he nearly died. But God showed mercy to him—and not to him only, but also to me—so that I would not have grief on top of grief. Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you can rejoice and I can be free from anxiety. So welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor people like him, since it was because of the work of Christ that he almost died. He risked his life so that he could make up for your inability to serve me.
Later, imprisoned in a Roman dungeon, Paul wrote his second letter to Timothy, saying, “As I remember your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy,” and then,
May the Lord grant mercy to the family of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my imprisonment. But when he arrived in Rome, he eagerly searched for me and found me. May the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that day! And you know very well all the ways he served me in Ephesus.
Alone, except for Luke, Paul told Timothy, “Make every effort to come to me soon,” requesting that he also bring Mark, because “he is a great help to me in ministry.” Paul even mentioned some items that he wanted (a care package?), asking Timothy to bring along a cloak that Paul had left in Troas, as well as his scrolls.
Even Paul needed member care, not just for the sake of his work, but also for his personal well-being. Or maybe we should say, given the hardships that he faced, especially Paul needed member care. He needed it, and he appreciated it. And if Paul needed it, so do today’s cross-cultural workers, every one.
And an old neighbor lady yelling, “Hey, you down there! We’ve got foreigners living next door and they go to bed early for some reason. You’re going to wake them up, so if you could move down the street, that would be a good start!” (or maybe something like that)
Goodnight street light
Goodnight moths flying around the street light
Goodnight dripping AC
And the confident frog chirping up in a tree
Goodnight cars driving by
And goodnight jet in the sky
And goodnight rooftops
Goodnight dog barking hellos at a stray
And goodnight shrill horn honking a few blocks away
And goodnight cart
Goodnight cheap art
And goodnight to the old neighbor lady doing her part
When I was a young elementary-school student, one of the highlights of my year was going to the store with a teacher-mandated list in hand to buy classroom supplies. Not only was there the possibilities inherent in blank tablets of paper, there was the just-oozing-with-creativity box of brand new Crayola Crayons. Not off-brand crayons, mind you, not last year’s crayons (with black nowhere to be found). No, I’m talking about the real deal, with sharp edges and their paper sleeves still crisply intact.
Every child is a budding Rembrandt when in possession of a new box of crayons (even if it’s not the coveted box of 120 with the built-in sharpener).
Those days are long gone for me. Now it’s more about digging into an old ice-cream bucket of crayons, many of them broken or missing their names. But, in spite of that, coloring is something I can still do.
For example, there was the time when we returned from the field and we were handed crayons and asked to draw a picture of what reentry looked like to us. My drawing was of me leading a group of other stick figures (my family) on an unfinished bridge over choppy water. One fellow returnee’s picture was of him pushing with much effort against an immovable stone wall. It was a great activity, as our pictures led to meaningful discussions about the transitions we were in.
Drawing can be good therapy, and cross-cultural workers aren’t the only ones who know that to be true.
In Inside Higher Ed, Irina Popescu writes about a drawing exercise that she gives to her college students on the first day of class. She asks them to draw a picture of their “imposter monster,” the ugly creature that tells them they don’t belong in college, that “lies in judgment,” reminding them that they’re not enough. When she first tried this, she was surprised at how seriously the students took the exercise, creating “careful representations of very real, frightening monsters.”
“Some monsters had three eyes,” she writes. “Others were family members whom students made into red-eyed ghosts. Others were ugly self-portraits of the students themselves.”
Imposter syndrome is alive and well in academe. It is alive and well among cross-cultural workers, too. Popescu was inspired to give this assignment because of the inadequacies she herself feels as a professor who’s a woman, a mother, someone who grew up poor, an immigrant. In your identity serving cross-culturally, what factors do you have in your life that feeds your imposter monster?
Are you too young? Are you too old? Are you single? Do you have too many children? Are you childless? Do you think you’re failing your family? Is it because you’re a female? Is your skin color wrong? Is your support lacking? Your faith? Are your language-learning skills not enough? Are your strategies coming up empty? Are you struggling with the culture? Are you homesick? Do you need more education? Are you unable to perfectly fulfill all your roles? Are you fearful of taking on more? Do you feel inadequate in the face of all the needs around you? Do you fall short of the biographies that have been your inspiration?
And all the while, do those around you seem to be doing just fine . . . no, not just fine, wonderfully well?
What’s the solution? Perhaps you’ve heard this common advice: Fake it till you make it. It sounds great. It rhymes! And it must work because so many people recommend it.
Fake it till you make it.
Um . . . let’s not do that. Let’s not put on smiles just to show our supporters that we’re always happy. Let’s stop nodding our heads so that others think we can speak their language. Let’s not say we’re “excellent,” “amazing,” and “perfect” when we’re far from it. Let’s not think we have to show the locals that we have it all figured out. Let’s not take on more than we can handle in order to impress someone else. Let’s quit imitating another’s life because they seem to be more successful than we are. Let’s not distrust others to the point that we can’t share the truth with them and possibly invite their truth in return. Let’s not act as if we know so much that we have no need to ask questions. Let’s not turn down help because we want to look as if we’ve got it all under control.
If you feel like an imposter, you’re not alone. We’re all, to a certain extent, in over our heads. And acting otherwise doesn’t make you less of an imposter. It makes you more of one. It’s funny how we’ve convinced ourselves that faking it is such a positive thing. Change the wording and here’s how it sounds:
Let’s pretend. Let’s bluff. Let’s lie. Let’s exaggerate. Let’s counterfeit. Let’s con. Let’s fool. Let’s trick. Let’s mislead. Let’s put on an act. Let’s wear a disguise. Will that really lead us where we want to go?
Rather, there’s another way, one that we’re familiar with, though we tend to forget it. It’s counter to much of the culture that surrounds us, but it’s part of a better culture that we aspire to, one that tells us to admit our weakness as a way to lay hold of strength. We’ve heard it before, but sometimes it helps to hear it from new, sometimes unlikely, sources.
Take, for instance, Dr. Francis Collins. He’s the former leader of the Human Genome Project and the current director of the NIH (making him Dr. Anthony Fauci’s boss). He’s the winner of this years $1.3 million Templeton Prize. And he’s a Christian. This past March, The Atlantic’s Peter Wehner asked Collins how his faith has changed over the years. He answered,
I think I’ve also arrived at a place where my faith has become a really strong support for dealing with life’s struggles. It took me awhile, I think—that sense that God is sufficient and that I don’t have to be strong in every circumstance.
One of my great puzzles when I first became a Christian is that verse, “My grace is sufficient for you, because My strength is made perfect in your weakness.” That was so completely upside down for me. Weakness? And now I embrace that with the fullness of everything around me when I’m realizing that my strength is inadequate, whether it’s coronavirus or some family crisis, God’s strength is always sufficient. That is a such a great comfort, but it took me a long time to get to the point of really owning that one.
And here are those words of Paul:
[God] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (NIV)
In October of 2001, my wife and I boarded a flight and moved our family from the US to our new home in Asia. Nearly ten years later, in June of 2011, we moved back to our old home in Joplin, Missouri. Those dates may not jump out at you, but the first was one month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The second was one month after an F5 tornado destroyed about a quarter of Joplin, killing 161.
When you relocate to a different culture, your world is turned upside down. How much more so when the earth itself seems to be tilted off its axis.
Some of you are making a cross-cultural transition right now, in the midst of a global pandemic, a global recession, and far-reaching upheavals confronting racism. So much emotional multitasking. So many unknowns. You’re not only tackling culture stress or reverse culture stress, but you’re trying to get used to a new normal when the old normal is challenging enough already.
There’s another term for new normal. It’s abnormal (at least for a while).
Speaking of culture, you have your own “cancel culture”: cancelled flights. cancelled church services, cancelled good-bye gatherings, cancelled welcome parties, cancelled support, cancelled camps, cancelled vacations, cancelled retreats, cancelled trainings, cancelled conferences, cancelled debriefings, cancelled classes, cancelled job opportunities, cancelled leases, cancelled assumptions, cancelled plans.
And when you get to make your trip, your first experience after you land is to self-quarantine for two weeks.
Please don’t just shrug all this off. Don’t dismiss the added stress that these increased challenges bring. Don’t simply put on a bigger smile as you push yourself harder. Rather, acknowledge the difficult circumstances and give yourself grace. And, as always, but especially now, understand the need for help in navigating your transitions.
“Every time there’s transition,” TCK-expert Ruth Van Reken tells Columbia News Service, “there is loss.” She’s talking about Third Culture Kids and Adult Third Culture Kids, but her words can apply to anyone moving between cultures. She goes on to say,
So when people are feeling strange about their situation I ask them, ‘What did you lose?’ Because where there’s loss, there’s grief. And when there’s no language for it, it comes out at your boss or in your marriage.
How wonderful it is to have someone to understand, to ask you the right questions. But sometimes you arrive into situations where everyone else is also going through some kind of transition, dealing with loss, and experiencing grief. Sometimes when you want to share your story, it’s as if those around you are saying, “Get in line.” Sometimes their stories seem more important than yours and you decide to hold yours in.
I’m a big proponent of intentional preparation and debriefing surrounding cross-cultural transitions. Skilled leaders know what to ask, how to listen, and what to say. They can start a conversation in chapter two, skipping the preface, because they’re already on the same page with you. And they give good, empathy-filled, heartfelt hugs.
But you may find that hard to come by right now. Groups can’t meet together. Ministries are postponing sessions. And hugs are extremely hard to come by. If that’s the case for you, I’d encourage you not just to skip everything until schedules are back on track. Instead take advantage of what’s available now—video sessions online, phone calls, or email conversations. I know from experience that it’s easy to put off things like this. Whether we’ve landed in our host or passport country, it’s common to want to hit the ground running and not spend the time needed for soul searching and soul care. So we wait for the day when getting together with someone will better fit into our schedules. But waiting can easily last forever as we become busy (overwhelmed?) with other aspects of life, as funds are spent elsewhere, and as we get in the rut of making excuses . . . until we decide it’s simply too late.
Even if you take part in something “virtual” now, you may still find it isn’t quite enough for you or your family members. If something seems to be lacking, don’t think of that as a deficiency on your part. If you’re suffering from Zoom fatigue, you’re not alone. Understand that while alternatives to face-to-face may be the best options available right now, they aren’t necessarily ideal for you. If you need more, something “with skin on,” I’d encourage you to commit to adding some kind of in-person version later, when that becomes possible. It won’t be easy, but if there’s a cost involved, set aside money for it or let your church know how important it is to you so they can help you afford it even if by that time your support has waned or funds have been diverted. Tell others how much you need it so they can help hold you accountable if your plans fade away.
And in between deliberate member-care events, recognize the opportunities to commune with fellow “travelers.”
When we transitioned back to storm-wrecked Joplin, we returned to a place full of transition, with people navigating their way down roads where the landmarks and street signs had violently disappeared. Some had lost family members, some their homes, some their jobs. Schools and a hospital were destroyed. Their losses were so much bigger than ours, but we joined the ranks of those affected by the storm. Across the road from our short-term housing, our church had erected a couple tents for distributing food and household items. I spent some time volunteering there, with instructions to help visitors “shop” but mostly to listen to them share about their tornado-caused wounds—physical and emotional—and to offer prayers. It was good for me to listen to their stories—and even nine years later, there are still stories to be heard.
Listening is a wonderful gift to give to others, and some people are able and desirous to return that gift. When you show that you care about the details of their lives, they want to return the blessing. They understand the shared emotions, even if the circumstances aren’t exactly the same. Praying for others is a wonderful gift, too. And some people will ask you how they can pray for you. They understand that prayer is a bridge to God and also a connection for those who pray together.
During turbulent times, the outside turmoil can disrupt your best-laid plans for inner calm. This is my prayer for you—that you’re able to engage in the grieving and the talking and the listening and the sharing and the praying and the giving and the receiving that you need to create that calm, no matter how long it takes.